Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Episode 149: Play the Devil Show Notes

 Click to read more

Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 149: Play The Devil

Record Date: March 13, 2022

Air Date: March 16, 2022



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

Have you ever felt like the weather was trying to ruin your day? 

Or have you watched as someone just went around causing issues - perhaps at work or in a friend group? 

What about this… have you noticed that some people seem to get involved in something - a certain type of business or perhaps politics - and it seems their entire purpose is to make things worse for others? 

We might say that they are just out… 

To Play The Devil. 


There are a couple variations of this phrase including

to play the devil 

to play the very devil 

to play the devil and all

and then all of those adding the word with to the end, as in

to play the devil with 

According to Oxford English Dictionary, this phrase means


to do mischief; to cause severe harm, damage, or disruption; to play havoc, ruin.

End Quote 

The phrase can also be used without referring to a person as in 

This weather is really playing the devil with my plans today. shares the definition, quote: 

Have a damaging or disruptive effect on.

Example: ‘this brandy plays the devil with one's emotions!’

End Quote 

Before we delve further into the research, I feel it necessary to briefly cover another similar phrase, because I saw that it was sometimes combined with To Play The Devil With

The phrase is very close to this one and is in use today, To Play With The Devil or Playing With The Devil, also similar - To Dance With The Devil or Dancing With The Devil. While the distinction may seem minimal, the meaning is quite different. To Play With The Devil essentially means to tempt fate, if you will. This is more akin to saying that one is teasing, tempting, or risking attention from the devil. This is someone who is playing loose and fast with their life or others’ lives or with their future or happiness in some way. They are not considering the consequences of their choices and actions - whether it is because they are not paying attention to or are outright ignoring the potential risks of their behavior. So the key part of To Play or Dance With the Devil is the risk the person is taking - with their own or others’ wellbeing. 

This is definitely a phrase worth exploring… but that will have to wait for another day. 

In the phrase we’re covering in this episode - To Play The Devil With - it is implied that the individual is a willing and active participant in the devil’s shenanigans, that they are acting as the devil or a devil, that they are an agent of the devil or of evil, or that the individual is doing the work of the devil. This might be on a small scale - perhaps someone who is a little bit of a trickster or prankster - mostly innocent, but annoying. It could be all the way at the other end of that scale - one who is presenting as pure evil and just has no business being around other humans. 


This phrase is going to take us back a ways. You might be able to guess that this one has the potential to be an older phrase - since it mentions the devil and all. Those concepts of evil, devils, or even an evil-doer on high have seemingly been with us from the beginning of our recorded history. 

This first attestation found in print I was able to access online thanks to the Text Creation Partnership via the online books library from the University of Pennsylvania. Shoutout to those working endless hours scanning and in some cases typing out older works to help preserve the knowledge and history. It’s pretty cool. 

In 1542, Andrew Borde’s [Boorde] work Hereafter foloweth a compendyous regyment or a dyetary of helth, made in Mou[n]tpyllier was published.  One section shares this tidbit of wisdom. 


The heade is lyght & doth ake, & ful of fantasyes, & dyuers tymes some be so sopyled, yt the malt worme playeth the deuyll so fast in the heade, that al the worlde rōneth rounde aboute on wheles then both the pryncipall membres & the offy∣cyal membres dothe fayle of theyr strength, yet the pulsys be full of agylyte.

End Quote

Andrew Boorde, Hereafter foloweth a compendyous regyment or a dyetary of helth, made in Mou[n]tpyllier

 (London]: Imprynted by me Robert Wyer, dwellynge in seynt Martyns parysshe besyde charynge Crosse: Text Creation Partnership, 2011), chap. 8, p. unknown,;submit=Go;subview=detail;type=simple;view=fulltext;q1=playeth+the+deuyll accessed on 13 March 2022

From Richard III by William Shakespeare, published in 1597, we find this gem.


End Quote 

The next item is a letter sent to The Caledonian Mercury of Midlothian, Scotland from the Edinburgh office, printed in the 10 August 1725 edition. 

End Quote 

Up next is a work from 1790. Written by William Combe, this excerpt is from The Devil Upon Two Sticks in England: Being a Continuation of Le Diable Boiteux of Le Sage


End Quote

The text continues with a reply from an actual devil - in this case, Asmodeus. 

Just a few years later - a letter was published in the Gazette of the United States & evening advertiser out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From the May 08, 1794 edition, the letter begins,


End Quote 

The author goes on to discuss the validity of other papers describing one with the following,


Their stories stick

End Quote 

He shares that he tried to sell his stories to that same paper and was denied and told the stories needed to be at least one quarter true. And then continues his ploy,


End Quote

This letter is signed by none other than the infamous devil himself, Asmodeus. 

Next we have the book Peter Simple by Frederick Marryat originally published in 1834, I’ll be reading from an 1839 edition. After rescuing a drowning man from the sea, both men navy officers, the narrator tells,


End Quote 

He goes on to describe just how bad things were. He had to air dry himself and his uniform… The uniform was a little snug when he’d first purchased it and now was more than a little too short at the wrists and ankles, was less than crisp in appearance - both wrinkled and slightly muted in color, and the poor guy had to go to inspection the next morning at 10am. 

I liked this example because the phrase is being used to say that that something got messed up… there’s no blame, no guilty party, no evil being done. It is truly idiomatic here. 

From Letters From The Front printed in the Birmingham Daily Post out of Warwickshire, England - 1 January 1900, a section titled Dublin Fusiliers and The Irish Brigade. It begins,


End Quote 

Let’s move to the last century… and to the Geauga Record December 08, 1955, out of Chardon, Geauga County, Ohio, United States. A short entry was submitted and shared on a page titled, “Only 14 More Shopping Days Until Christmas


End Quote 

From The coastland times with which is combined the pilot and herald of Belhaven and Swan Quarter out of Manteo, North Carolina, May 05, 1961.

And this comes from the section


End Quote 

Where the previous quote was about the frustration caused by inanimate objects… this one is more dirty gossip and not entirely mild pranking… closer to neighborly strife? Well, there is still more to come, but

Before we get to our modern uses, we want to say thank you to our sponsors…

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon.

You can help support this educational artform and get awesome perks along the way! Tiers start at $3 a month, which get you our polls and community-only discussions, early access to the podcast, and the behind the scenes video for each episode so you can watch along as we make the show. 

At $10 you’ll also get original digital artwork from Shauna once a month featuring exclusive art about an idiom or other turn of phrase. At $15, you’ll also get personal on-air recognition like Pat Rowe does every episode. And of course huge thanks goes to the top spot among our Patrons, our Dean of Learning, Mary Halsig-Lopez. Thank you so much to Mary and all of our patrons. 

If you want to help create Bunny Trails week after week, whatever your budget, we are bunnytrailspod on Patreon. 


Modern Uses

Play The Devil is a 2016 drama written and directed by Maria Govan. IMDB provides this synopsis, 


Set against the backdrop of Trinidad and Tobago's mystical Carnival, a gifted and struggling young man becomes the object of intrigue for an older, well-meaning businessman until their worlds collide.

End Quote 

I read a little more about this one and it definitely has some intense themes going. It isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but the movie received excellent reviews. 


In 2012 Sinitta released the album Play The Devil With Me

It features 3 songs which include Play The Devil With Me as well as an instrumental version and a remix of Don’t Go Soft on Me Tonight.

Sinitta Malone, known mononymously as Sinitta, is an American-born British singer. She initially found commercial success in the mid-1980s with the single "So Macho" and had several other hits during the decade. She also made waves on March 10, 2022 when the 58 year old arrived at the Burberry British Diversity Awards in a stylish, long-sleeved white mini dress and above-the-knee boots. Despite how my description might make that sound… it’s a very classy look. Some of the lyrics from the song include


And now it’s time for me to find

How to get inside your mind

Why do you play the devil with me

And an angel with everyone else

Why do you play the devil with me

When you know you’re only fooling yourself

You’re playin’ a losing game

It’s time that you were tamed  

So don’t play the devil with me

You’re the only one that’s gonna get hurt

End Quote 

In the Books

From Playing the Devil

by Grant Campbell was published in 2013


Beloved community physician and veteran Dr. Michael Reece has returned home from service in Afghanistan a changed man. Recovered from a horrific injury sustained in a Taliban ambush, he has made strides in returning to his normal civilian life. That all changes when he learns he is to receive the military's highest award; the Medal of Honor. The resulting publicity as well as the shocking murder of his former childhood mentor and current United States Senator threatens to expose secrets from his past he had hoped to keep hidden forever. The aftermath forces him to make decisions that could not only threaten his own life, but the lives of those closest to him. As the hunt for the killer escalates and demons from his past return, Reece must deal with his own survivor's guilt and face hard choices that could either give him peace or destroy him. He must rely on the bonds of brotherhood forged both on the battlefield and in the horrors of the past to find a way to survive and save his family. The worlds of politics, war and crime collide in a story that will pull the reader into a world where very little is as it seems on the surface.

End Quote 

From Play the Devil

by Scott Laudati was published in 2016

The synopsis from the publisher reads, 


Play The Devil is the debut novel from Scott Laudati. A semi-autobiographical tale of two best friends traversing the backyards of New Jersey in search of the American Dream. Like a 200 page Bruce Springsteen song, Play The Devil is permeated by a sense of nostalgia and loss, of love and redemption, with images of old Americana littering the novel like scenes from a movie, it is the coming-of-age story for the next generation.

End Quote 

From the Twitterverse

Vash Bot says, 


End Quote 

We also have the following from MarlsArchive


End Quote 

A couple of somewhat pointed statements.

Some of what I saw on social media were folks who had shortened playing devil's advocate and simply said, "I hate to play the devil here, but..." and then shared their unpopular or contrary opinion. Perhaps we will see a conflating of these two phrases or perhaps the elimination of one of them.

It is also common for the statement from Shakespeare's Richard III to be quoted - sometimes alone and other times with an image of a politician or along with the link to a story discussing supposed corruption, and similar.

In the Art World

Don't Tease The Devil found on Saatchi Art

Jack Liang Wang

Hong Kong

Drawing, Ballpoint Pen on Paper 

Wrap up...

This was really fun to research. Do I say that every time? Right, so I like to research things… But really, there was so much to this one… sometimes it is a struggle to find good resources. In this case, it was hard to choose what to include! 



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


Time to wrap up with the weekly poll from Patreon.

Recently, we asked our Patrons, What's your general feeling for 2022? 

Cautiously Optimistic won this one with a whopping 75% and was trailed by Exhausted.

I shared that I want to be hopeful, but I feel it is more prudent to be cautiously optimistic. So I'm going with that.

To which Jan replied, “Same. It's not the worst ever, so maybe it'll be ok.”


It’s difficult to be totally optimistic these days. Though, I also recognize that adults have been saying this as long as we’ve had the language necessary to express the thought… so maybe it’s just that we’re all getting old? 

I think that’s a nicer idea. It isn’t that the world is actually totally worse… it’s just that as we age, we see and remember more of the sad and see less of the magic that’s possible 

Aaaaand, now that I’ve put it into words, I’ve changed my mind and it seems a little sadder now. 


Mary shared some deep thoughts for everyone: 

“In truth, I am exhausted. At the same time, as I work with people and help them through my business, I know that I need to be optimistic. Maybe it's because they are so appreciative that I am becoming a little optimistic. I don't want to go overboard though. I am not one of those happiness is a choice people. Life gives us ups and downs and we can choose how we react, but there are simply times when it's okay to give into a feeling of sadness. On the other side of that, it's perfectly acceptable to jump for joy when life hands you a delicious treat - better still is if it's one you earned.”


And Emily shared, quote: 

“This teacher is exhausted. ❤️”

Emily, I cannot imagine. I hope you are able to get some restorative time in soon! 


If you want to join our polls, head over to where Patrons at all levels can participate in our weekly silly polls that mean absolutely nothing and aren’t even scientifically valid. But they are fun to talk about!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users

No comments:

Post a Comment